Skip to content

When was the last time you read the comments on a main article and then you met that guy? You know, the unhinged person who unleashes a fiery tirade about a subject or a writer that includes all sorts of playground insults, things we were told not to say in kindergarten.

Have you ever wondered if that person really wasn’t crazy? And in fact, it might not even be “real”?

Most of us like to assume the best about people, even people we only meet on the Internet. But an alarmingly high number of hateful comments and posts on social media come from “trolls,” not from Lord of the Rings movies or miniature creatures with colored hair, but from people who are paid to manipulate public opinion. (Actually, the word troll in this context is a derivative of the word “troller” and has been used since the 1990s to describe people hunting for controversy on the Internet.)

Few appreciate the scope of troll farms operating in Russia and at least 29 other governments around the world. These “keyboard armies” operate for different reasons within each country, but they all do at least two things: spread propaganda that promotes the government’s agenda and attack those who question that agenda.

According to a US Senate Intelligence Committee report, this has been going on in Russia via social media for nearly 10 years. But it wasn’t until the 2016 election that the general public began to take notice. A Justice Department indictment filed in 2018 alleges that hundreds of paid Russian trolls run these campaigns thanks to an annual budget of millions. And by the 2020 election, their work was reaching nearly 140 million Americans a month.

Writing in the most detailed study of Internet trolls operating in China, Ryan Fedasiuk, a research analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technologies, said the effort there is “much larger than previously reported,” with 2 million paid employees posting nearly. 450 million records every year.

According to a 2017 report by researchers at Harvard, Stanford, and the University of California, Berkeley, these are large-scale efforts to “distract the public and change the subject” from serious issues.

Of course, legitimate questions have been raised about similar crackdowns in our country, albeit different in scale and substance, especially as we learn more about how the US government has affected moderate social media standards during the pandemic.

It is clear, however, that some governments are not satisfied with merely influencing their citizens. Twitter has announced that it has closed tens of thousands of troll accounts Only in 2020 and even more “booster” accounts that seek to amplify the trolling account’s influence.

Of course, governments have always sought influence using whatever means are popular at the time, and these practices are not always unethical. VOA’s first broadcasts, for example, were intended to combat Nazi propaganda during World War II. And some internet trolls are just what they seem. angry people let off steam when they read something they don’t like. But Fedasyuk and others argue that something more sinister is at play on a larger scale, even, in Fedasyuk’s words, “a strategy to capture the power of international discourse.”

What do trolls do?

Independent researchers estimated that the Russian “Internet Research Agency” in 2015 had nearly 400 employees working 12-hour shifts, with 80 trolls dedicated solely to disrupting the US political system. It’s happening on every social media platform and in the comment threads of major news sites, with every imaginable form of misinformation, including “fake fact-checking videos.”

According to a former employee, these efforts are carefully managed by supervisors who are “obsessed” with page views, posts, clicks and traffic. Lyudmila Savchuk described being hidden in a Russian troll factory that attracted young workers who were paid even more than doctors. He recalled working shifts that required him to do five political posts, 10 non-political posts and 150 to 200 comments on other trolls’ posts. Employees were given English grammar lessons and encouraged to watch American media. Since each troll can create and control many different accounts, it becomes a numbers game to see which one is the biggest and will have the most influence.

Most of us have seen social media as a place to share family photos, inspirational quotes, or cat memes. Just imagine for a moment if you quit your job and devoted yourself full time to spreading mistrust and sowing discord in a rival nation.

What could you do, just you, alone?

What do trolls want?

When the Russian attack on Ukraine began, Russian troll farms shifted their focus there. As ProPublica reported, one of the troll accounts shared a video of “someone standing in front of dark gray body bags that appear to be filled with corpses. As he was talking to the camera, one of the bodies behind him raised his arms to keep the top of the bag from blowing off.”

What viewers don’t realize is that this originally came from a climate change demonstration in Vienna, Austria. But the troll tweeted: “Propaganda also makes mistakes, one of the corpses came to life just as they were counting the deaths of Ukrainian civilians.”

Another account immediately tweeted the same video. “I’m Screaming” two others share the same video with histrionics: “Ukrainian propaganda does not sleep”.

According to an analysis by Clemson researchers and ProPublica, which found more than 250 million views of posts promoting Russian state media and disparaging President Joe Biden, TikTok appears to be a particularly fertile breeding ground for trolls.

Wherever they are found, troll farms all work to advance their funder’s preferred narrative and diminish the viability and credibility of competing viewpoints. That means prosecuting researchers, journalists, and citizens who dare to raise dissenting voices, or even simply drawing attention to the trolls themselves.

Finnish investigative journalist Jessica Aro has been harassed online after she published a story based on interviews with workers at a St. Petersburg troll factory. A Helsinki court later convicted three people of defamation and negligence.

In addition to ensuring the dominance of their preferred narrative, these efforts usually aim for other outcomes.

How to spot a troll?

Now to the most difficult question. How do you see a troll?

In all great spy novels, the plot hinges on a double agent maintaining their cover; it matters to trolls too. But there are some telltale signs that you’re witnessing a troll at work.

For example, how? Twitter has confirmed, trolls tend to have very few, if any, followers on social media. And look out for the honest-sounding username “truth_seeker”.

According to an analysis by Clemson University and ProPublica, troll posts appear at set times that align with the IRA’s workday. they go out on Russian holidays and weekends, reflecting the pattern in the work schedule. Additionally, there are often almost identical texts, photos and videos that appear across different accounts and platforms.

Still, if you’re having a hard time accepting it, don’t feel bad. Even our spy agencies are struggling. Earlier this summer, the US State Department announced a large reward of up to $10 million for people willing to leak information.

Instead of the more obvious smoking gun, I think we should trust more obvious intuitive patterns. For example, as you may notice a hit article in journalism, ask yourself: Are they sharing a “veil” rather than a thoughtful comment, i.e. something designed to annoy? If so, then they can be a real stingy American, but there’s also a chance they could live somewhere else entirely and get paid to post.

Another obvious one. Is this post complaining about something that most reasonable people would probably agree on? Politeness. Goodness. Basic justice. Or how about the troll farms themselves?

I am fascinated to read the comment threads among the growing number of stories of systematic trolling. Every once in a while you come across someone who finds it odd that the topic is getting any attention at all, and is ready with a clever quip to convince the rest of us that the whole inquiry isn’t worth our time or attention.

But of course it is, especially if we think about the health of our public discourse. And maybe it’s time to think more seriously about who exactly is behind it means to comment you see.

Wake up America! It’s time to stop playing.

Jacob Hess is the editor of Public Square Magazine and a former board member of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Debate. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since publishing You’re Not As Crazy As I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong) with Phil Neisser. With Kerry Skarda, Kyle Anderson, and Ty Mansfield, Hess also co-authored The Power of Stillness.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *